Does IQ Matter In A President?
VDARE.com scoop from last week, "This
Just In: Kerry`s IQ Likely Lower than Bush`s!,"
continues to make news. On the "NBC Nightly News" on
Thursday night, 10/28/2004, Tom Brokaw asked John
Kerry for his reaction to Sailer`s discovery. You
can read the exchange on VDARE.com`s blog.
Perceptions of candidates`
intelligence have long played a major role in American
politics, as have attempts to manipulate those
perceptions. Misspelling the word "potato,"
for example, appears to have permanently doomed former
Vice President Dan Quayle`s Presidential ambitions.
Thus, it`s hardly surprising that
some candidates have toiled to cultivate an image of
brilliance. For example, Joseph Kennedy Sr. spent
heavily on the ghostwriters who largely concocted the
two nonfiction bestsellers published under his son
John`s name. JFK even won the Pulitzer Prize for
"Profiles in Courage," which is now known to be
mostly the work of speechwriter Theodore Sorenson.
In reality, President Kennedy
possessed a fine but hardly spectacular brain. According
Thomas C. Reeves, author of "A
Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy,"
in prep school JFK scored a 119 on an IQ test.
Although a tenth of the population scores higher than
119, a C-SPAN poll of 58 historians rated Kennedy as
possessing the eighth strongest leadership qualities of
all 41 Presidents.
Similarly, the Democratic nominee
in 1952 and 1956,
Adlai Stevenson, also portrayed himself as an
intellectual. The press created the term "egghead"
to describe the bald and supposedly scholarly Stevenson.
In truth, Stevenson`s resume was comparable to that of
George W. Bush. Stevenson was the grandson of Grover
second Vice President. As a rich socialite,
Stevenson barely scraped through Princeton and
Northwestern. After a nondescript early career,
Stevenson unexpectedly became the popular and competent
governor of Illinois. He then ran for President only
four years later. At his death, the only book found
resting upon his
bedside table was "The Social Register."
In sharp contrast, the man who
twice beat Stevenson,
Dwight Eisenhower, took pains to hide his
considerable brainpower. He found it expedient to
present himself as a kindly old duffer interested mostly
in golf and cowboy stories. This masquerade fooled even
the historians of the time, who somehow assumed that the
organizer of the staggeringly complex D-Day invasion had
the IQ of a tree stump. Shortly after Eisenhower left
office, a poll of historians rated him one of the ten
worst Presidents ever.
After Ike`s death, however, a new
generation of historians discovered much evidence
supporting the expert opinion of his Vice President,
Richard Nixon, that
"The most devious man I ever came across in politics."
Therefore, this year`s C-SPAN poll of historians rated
him one of the ten strongest Presidential leaders.
One rule of thumb useful in
evaluating candidates` reputations is to remember that
more writers will write nice things about politicians
who give more jobs to writers. For example,
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, and John F.
Kennedy resembled George W. Bush in important ways. They
were wealthy heirs to famous political names who
possessed strong electoral skills but no intellectual
interests discernible to the disinterested historians of
the current era. All three, though, were smart enough to
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. This prominent Harvard
historian returned their favors by extolling their
mental glamour for years afterwards.
In contrast, Presidents such as
Dwight Eisenhower, and
Richard Nixon who employed as advisers more
businessmen and soldiers than intellectuals naturally
elicited less adoration from professional prose
stylists. In reality, these four were formidably brainy.
translated Dante for fun and was the last President
to write his own speeches. His prose style was the most
lapidary of 20th Century Presidents. (The reason
slept so much while in the White House appears to be
that he may been
clinically depressed after the sudden death of his
16 year old son in 1924.)
Nixon played a central role in
American public life for many decades despite humble
origins. There`s a story I
have not confirmed that Nixon scored 143 on an IQ test,
which seems not implausible—what other political assets
did Nixon have besides an exceptionally powerful
intelligence, energy, and determination? In contrast,
his opponent in 1960, John F. Kennedy, tested at 119 in
prep school, but he was gifted with good looks, a
charismatic personality, self-confidence, a glamorous
wife, a prominent father, and wealth, everything the
awkward, maladroit Nixon lacked.
Bill Bradley, a celebrated jock
politician, provides a recent example of the
dubiousness of reputations for intelligence. The former
New York Knick managed to project for two decades a
public image as the thinking man`s Senator. Yet, when
finally tested in his run against Al Gore for the
Democratic nomination in 2000 Bradley`s lackluster
campaign lived down to his 485 SAT Verbal score (570
under the new scoring system). The late historian Jim
Chapin, one of the very few leftists to publicly admit
the utility of IQ, told me that Bradley`s SAT Verbal
score "May explain his relative ponderousness in
reacting to changing verbal circumstances—he clearly
preps and over-preps, but he may have more trouble
dealing with unexpected lines."
That we should expect smarter
Presidents to serve us better may seem unlikely, though,
judging from the historical record. While some intensely
bright men such as
Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln enjoyed much
success in office, others experienced major
difficulties, such as Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover,
Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, James Madison, and
Still, this doesn`t mean that IQ is
not desirable in a President, all else being equal. The
problem is that all else is not equal. There are so few
people at the far right end of the IQ bell curve that
you can`t always find amongst them all the other
Presidential talents you need.
In contrast, the rare individuals
who make it to the White House from the fat part of the
bell curve are far more gifted overall than is typical
for their IQ. It`s the same as with height in
basketball. If you are 7`6" tall, NBA teams will throw
money at you no matter how dorky you might be. But if
you are only
6`0", the competition is so fierce that you need to
be as quick as
So, if IQ can indeed explain
something like one sixth of job performance, how
important is IQ in hiring Presidents? Chapin and Charles
Murray, co-author of
The Bell Curve came to an agreement during a
discussion in 2000 that IQ probably explains about as
much of the variance in success of Presidents as it has
been measured to do for salesmen: 16%. That sounds
trivial. Yet, since there are so many different factors
that contribute to success, IQ can be one of the most
important in relative terms. For most jobs, it typically
ranks with conscientiousness and honesty as one of the
three most significant factors.
Can a man be too smart to be
President? "Possibly," says
Jerry Pournelle, the science fiction novelist who
learned recently that at age six he had scored 184 on an
IQ test. "We have known since Shakespeare that there
is and perhaps ought to be a certain distrust of those
sicklied over with the pale cast of thought."
Although Pournelle fought in Korea as an artillery
officer, he states, "We have always known that the
brightest do not make the best military officers. There
is a minimum, but go too high and you get problems. This
is standard thinking." According to British
Chris Brand, the military adage that if a leader is
more than 30 IQ points smarter than his average
follower, he will have trouble communicating effectively
stems from British Army research during World War II.
Inspired by this rule of thumb,
historian Chapin offered a novel theory for why the
first six Presidents were so smart on average, while the
braininess of Presidents from Andrew Jackson through
William McKinley tended to be unimpressive, and then
20th Century presidents rebounded to be generally fairly
He suggests that the IQ gap between
the average President and the average voter has stayed
roughly the same, but the voters have changed in average
intelligence level. Up through 1824, the electorate was
quite smart because only elite property owners could
vote. Then, politics became a kind of national spectator
sport with huge turnouts, so the IQ of voters fell to
the mean. Therefore, we stopped electing geniuses like
Jefferson and Madison and started electing nondescript
politicos like Franklin Pierce and Rutherford B. Hayes.
Then, a century ago, other forms of
mass entertainment came along. Turnout dropped,
especially among the dimmer elements. This allowed
clever men like Nixon, Carter, Bush the Elder (Phi Beta
Kappa at Yale, graduating in 2.5 years), and Clinton to
Gregory Cochran, a rocket scientist turned
evolutionary biologist, summed up the challenge facing
voters. "What really matters in a leader is not being
smart, but being right. Who was smarter? Warren G.
V.I. Lenin? I`m sure Lenin could have beaten Harding
in chess, but I definitely would rather have lived under
Harding than Lenin. Harding was kind of a dumb bunny,
but his prejudices and instincts were much more
reasonable than Lenin`s, who was wrong about
I think it`s useful for both the
public and the candidates to have honest information
about their intellectual capacities. Test scores aren`t
hugely important, but at least they are objective and
honest compared to the enormous amounts of spin we
voters are subjected to.
It`s not good for Kerry to listen
to all the flattery about how brilliant he is compared
to Bush. For example, it hurts him on the campaign trail
because he refuses to just read what his speechwriters
give him. He did well in the debates where the time
limits kept him from rambling.
But when giving a speech, he
insists on embroidering the crisply-written text with
his own off the top of the head dependent clauses and
digressions. He`d be doing better if somebody told him –
"Senator, you aren`t that smart. Just the read the
Bush, in contrast, is a more
disciplined campaigner because he doesn`t improvise
much. But, as President, he`d do a better job if he
sweated the details more. He should be told, “You were
smart enough to get two Ivy League degrees and learn how
to fly a supersonic jet fighter, so stop winging it
based on your gut instinct. Buckle down and study the
[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and